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Natural20's Random Thought Table - It's Good To Talk Print
Written by Brian Nisbet   
Feb 19, 2010 at 04:23 PM
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Natural20's Random Thought Table - It's Good To Talk
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Our bestest Natural20 tells us of the trials and tribulations of allowing your players the benefits of free communication. I say gag all of 'em!

It's Good to Talk

As I write this I'm travelling from Dublin to Cork, the 3G connection on my laptop fading in and out of coverage, webpages failing to load and emails trying desperately to reach my inbox. Most of the cities and towns in Ireland are bathed in radiowaves these days, so it's only when you flit between them that the fragility of our communications networks is really laid bare. I have a little bit of a thing about the ability to keep in touch, to be reached and to get all the latest news, so I felt it was a suitable topic for today.

In our modern world we've begun to take the ability to communicate with everyone, instantly, for granted. Players have a tendency to carry this assumption, like many others, into whatever game they're playing, or to attempt to recreate technological advantage with magic or the like. There's also the massive advantage to be gleaned from the ability to communicate both within the party and with whatever important NPCs there may be elsewhere, either to keep abreast of what's going on or to call in the cavalry when it all starts to go wrong.

However this gift is one easily given and oft regretted, by the GM at least. Be it a set of magical items, a spell (Mage: The Ascension players used to be very, very fond of their Mind links), brain implants, genetic mutations or a variety of other options once the party can talk to each other, securely, the GM has lost one of their biggest plot levers. Players are, as we know, a devious bunch, and given a chance to plan, consult with those both near and far and get their story straight, their normal plot-derailing powers can be magnified tenfold!

Before you start adding "never let the players talk to anyone" into your list of GMing commandments, do remember just how useful it can be for both sides of the shield. And that's before you consider that any gift given is only there to be taken away at some crucial stage. For a start, dropping plot in from afar is always going to be a handy trick, especially if it forces difficult decisions on your group - "We realise you're only a day's travel away from the target system, but if you don't get to Quadrant Seven now, millions will die!" And as with any communication, who says the information being passed is accurate or true? Most people implicitly trust things that are sent from home/base/the boss, often with good reason, but much fun can be had when those at home don't have the group's best interests at heart, or have decided to sacrifice them without consultation. Depending on the communications method there could easily be the issues of impersonation or Chinese whispers. Partial or garbled messages can also be a lot of fun, missing crucial information, or offering up interpretations other than the intended. Of course you have to be very careful to limit the party's ability to clarify things in that situation, but we'll deal with methods of controlling media in a moment.

Intra-party communications are a bit trickier. They are obviously a massive boon to the players, but they can make the GM's life a damn sight easier as well. Sometimes. In a lot of situations it's just easier to let the PCs, briefly, chat amongst themselves and assume this is taking place in character rather than out. It also solves a number of issues where players say something, by accident, meant only for the rest of the party. But these are fudges to get around behaviour that should either be discouraged or should attract a heavy in game penalty. In the vast majority of situations the benefit is to the group. As I mentioned above it can allow for all sorts of plotting and scheming that would otherwise be impossible, whether due to the proximity of unwanted listeners, physcial separation, the need to be very quiet or very loud background noise. The last two tend to be more of a benefit when there is either fighting or sneaking to be done. I don't have the space to ennumerate all the different plot issues silent (or near silent) intra-party communications can neuter, but off the top of my head, here's a few: interrogations, diplomatic negotiations, covert ops, sudden changes in situation, ambush planning, con jobs, seduction and prison breaks. But really, the list goes on. So, this naturally leads to the question, why would you ever let your players have this kind of advantage?

In some cases the system explicitly gives options. There are multiple cyberpunk games (you remember those, they're like steampunk games with slightly less silly goggles) where everyone and their mother has the ability to communicate sub-vocally via an implant in their throat or a chip in their heads. Now, as it is oft stated, there's no compulsion on the GM to give the players something, just because it's in the sourcebook, but that argument wears thin when you're talking about something that really is a staple of the genre. Future games assume faster and better communications and reality backs this up. The same compulsion doesn't exist with fantasy games (remember, the only form of instant communication in Lord of the Rings was fraught with danger for the user and by the late Third Age there was really only one person to talk to), but there can still be reasons to say yes. One of the big reasons to allow this trick applies to so much else; if the players can have it, so can the NPCs. This is less useful for the GM, obviously, but it gives justification for a number of things and may be worth the hassle. Obviously if you don't allow the power/ability/thingy, then you can't screw around with it, and the options here are legion.

For a start, anything that starts off as secure and silent should never remain so forever. If you have players who don't think they can be hacked, then they deserve everything they get. It may not be in character for all of them to think about it, but someone should. The frequency and accuracy of the hacking (and obviously the justification/method) are up to the GM, but it may be considered cruel to just immediately have the NPCs know everything. It may be that certain NPCs can hear them when they're near-by, or that only long distance communications can be hacked, but there are a wealth of options.

The other big category of ways to screw around with things is with misinformation. This is, to a certain extent, still hacking, but it's a different magnitude, largely because it assumes the messages can be heard as well. Removing certain words, delaying messages, even different emphasis can cause all sorts of fun problems. Blocking one end or the other of a conversation is a little more obvious, but who says the problem isn't naturally occuring (gotta watch out for that cosmic radiation). Perhaps dealing with the hacker (an almost demeaning title to use for a major villain, but such is life) is a campaign goal and will result in the medium being unusable for a while, and used cautiously ever afterwards?

Precise communication is one of the hallmarks of true sentience and most of us rely on it quite a bit in real life. Players will love their GM if they're allowed to communicate with themselves and others, but drama and the chance that things could go wrong is what keeps games moving, keeps players on their toes and, in the end, makes the experience all the more memorable. So yes, it is good to talk, but nothing in a roleplaying game comes without a price.

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